This is an update of a post I wrote some years ago. Since I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately from writers wondering how to request contract termination and rights reversion, I thought it would be useful to take another look.
There’s no “right” or “official” procedure for a rights reversion request. If you do a websearch on “rights reversion request” you can find various pieces of advice from authors and others. That said, here are some common-sense suggestions for how to go about this (Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, so what follows is not legal advice.)
First of all, if you have a competent agent, discuss the situation with your agent and ask them to approach the publisher on your behalf. Especially if you’re with a larger publisher, your agent is more likely to know whom to contact, and in a better position to push for a response.
The advice below is primarily aimed at authors who don’t have agents, and/or who are with smaller publishers.
1. Look through your contract to find the clause or clauses dealing with termination and rights reversion. Typically this will be a separate clause, but some contracts bury termination/reversion language in other and even unrelated clauses.
Hopefully there will be stipulations for when and how you can request your rights back–for example, a book may become eligible for rights reversion once sales numbers or royalty income fall below a stated minimum.
The ideal reversion language is precise (“Fewer than 100 copies sold in the previous 12 consecutive months” or “Fewer than 50 copies sold in each of two consecutive royalty periods”) and makes reversion automatic on the author’s request, as long as those benchmarks are met. (For more on why reversion language needs to be precise–including examples–see my post on The Importance of Reversion Clauses in Book Contracts.)
Unfortunately, reversion language is often far from ideal. Your contract may impose a blackout period (you can’t request reversion until X amount of time after your pub date), a waiting period after the reversion request (the publisher has X number of months to comply, during which time your book remains on sale), or provide the publisher with an escape mechanism (it may only allow you to request reversion, leaving the publisher the latitude to refuse, or may make your request moot if the publisher issues or licenses a new edition within 6 months of your request).
Worse, your contract may not include objective standards for termination, leaving the decision entirely to the publisher’s discretion; or it may include antiquated standards, such as this: “The book shall not be considered out of print as long as it is available for sale through the regular channels of the book trade”. Such language was meaningful in the days when books existed only in print, and print runs could be exhausted, but it’s useless for today’s digital reality.
It’s also possible that your contract may not include any reversion language at all. This is often the case with limited-term contracts, so if your contract is one of those, you may just have to wait things out. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen life-of-copyright contracts with no reversion clause. This is a big red flag: a life-of copyright contract should always be balanced with precise reversion language.
2. Be sure you know who should receive the request. For smaller publishers, this may not be difficult to figure out (it may even be included in the reversion clause), but for larger houses, especially if there are multiple divisions and lots of staff, it may require some research. (Again, if you have an agent you trust, they may be better able to handle this.)
3. Begin your reversion request by stating your name, the title(s) of your book(s), your pub date(s), and your contract signing date(s). I don’t think there’s any need to create separate requests if you’re requesting reversion on more than one book; but there are those who disagree.
4. If you do meet your contract’s reversion stipulations, indicate how (“Between August 1, 2020 and July 31, 2021, Title X sold 98 copies”) and state that per the provisions of your contract, you’re requesting that the contract be terminated and your rights be reverted to you. If the contract provides a specific procedure for making the reversion request (such as making notification via registered mail), follow this exactly.
5. If you don’t meet your contract’s reversion stipulations, if reversion is at the publisher’s discretion, or if your contract has no reversion language, simply request that the publisher terminate the contract and return your rights to you. If there’s an objective reason you can cite–diminishing sales, for instance, or your own inability to promote the book–do so, even if those reasons are not mentioned in the contract as a condition of reversion.
6. DO: be polite, businesslike, and succinct.
7. DON’T: mention the problems the publisher may be having, the problems you’ve had with the publisher, problems other authors have had, online chatter, news coverage, lawsuits, or anything else that could be construed as negative.
As much as you may be tempted to vent your anger, resentment, or righteous indignation, rubbing the publisher’s nose in its own mistakes and failures will alienate it, and could cause it to decide to penalize you by refusing your request, or just refusing to respond. This is a real risk: I can’t count the number of stories I’ve heard over the years about vindictive publishers who decided to punish authors they deemed troublemakers by holding a death-grip on the authors’ rights.
Again: keep it professional, businesslike, and unemotional.
8. Request that the publisher provide you with a reversion letter. (email is fine). Certain contract provisions (such as the author’s warranties) and any outstanding third-party licenses (such as audiobooks) will survive contract termination. Also, publishers typically claim copyright on cover art and on a book’s interior format (i.e., you couldn’t just re-publish a scanned version of the book), and the right to sell off any printed copies that exist at the time of reversion (in that case, royalties should be paid to you as usual). Some publishers are may also claim copyright on metadata (which they define not just as ISBNs and catalog data, but back cover and advertising copy).
Occasionally, publishers attempt to claim copyright on their own editing, and revert rights only to the originally-submitted manuscript. This is ridiculous and unprofessional. For one thing, it provides no benefit to the publisher–what difference does it make if an author re-publishes the final version of a book from which the publisher has already received the first-rights benefit? For another, it’s by no means clear that editing is eligible for copyright protection at all.
If you find a copyright claim on editing in a publishing contract, consider it a red flag. If the publisher makes this claim without a contractual basis–as some publishers do–feel free to ignore it.
To give you an idea of what an official reversion letter looks like, here’s a screenshot of one of mine.
9. If the publisher registered your copyright, ask for the original certificate of copyright. Smaller publishers often don’t register authors’ copyrights–again, check your contract, and double-check by searching on your book at the US Copyright Office’s Copyright Catalog.
10. Send your reversion request by email and, if you have the publisher’s physical address, by snail mail, return receipt requested. (Your contract may require a snail mail notification, but even if it doesn’t, it’s a good idea.)
11. What if your publisher refuses your request, or simply ignores you? There are not-insignificant odds that this may happen, whether because the publisher feels your book still has sales potential, or the company is having business trouble, or the publisher regards you as a problem author due to concerns and issues you’ve put on the record and wants to punish you (I wish this were less common than it is).
If you’re a member of a professional writers’ group, it may offer resources to help (such as SFWA’s Griefcom and the Authors Guild’s legal services). Otherwise, there is unfortunately not a lot you can do, apart from being persistent (if you’re being ignored), or deciding to take legal action (an expensive option).
One last thing: a publisher should not put a price on contract termination and rights reversion. Charging a fee for reversion or contract termination is a nasty way for a publisher to make a quick buck as a writer goes out the door (here’s one publisher that did this). A termination fee in a publishing contract is a red flag (for a more detailed discussion, see my blog post). And attempting to levy a fee that’s not included in the contract is truly disgraceful.